2019 Summer Road Trip

Who plans a summer road trip just to see a bridge? We do!

So, this past Memorial Day weekend my wife and I embarked on one of the longest road trips we’ve ever done – driving down the east coast to Cape May, NJ, and then along the shore to the Chesapeake Bay, over the bay and back up north via Richmond VA, Washington DC, Baltimore MD, and of course a large portion of the NJ Turnpike.

The idea for this road trip stretches back years and years – when my wife first heard of the “Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel” and decided she’d like to see it someday. So back in January of this year we decided that it was time to finally make this trip, and we started planning and booking hotels.

Eventually we settled on the long weekend of Memorial Day, plus an extra day for traveling (Friday – Monday). We’d drive down to Cape May NJ and explore the town a bit before catching the ferry over to Delaware, where we’d spent the night in Ocean City in Maryland before heading down a bit further to Chincoteauge in Virginia, and then finally onwards to the bridge/tunnel – with a final overnight in Richmond, Virginia, before the long drive back home.

The trip started a little bit late on Friday morning, mainly due to the fact that my wife had been in Ottowa, Canada, during the week and due to severe thunderstorms had been delayed there overnight Thursday – meaning I was picking her up at the airport very early that Friday morning, instead of early the prior Thursday evening as originally planned.

However, we got on the road and made good time down the Garden State Parkway to Cape May, where we stopped at a brewery (Cape May Brewing) for lunch & some very nice beer (with a suitable wait before heading out again).

Cape May ferry
A beautiful day for a ferry ride

Then it was the roughly 90 minute journey across the Delaware Bay via the Cape May ferry to, uh, well, Delaware! But we didn’t dwell long in Delaware, setting our sights on Ocean City Maryland, where our hotel awaited us.

Ocean City was a bit of a shock for the both of us – we’d never been anywhere like this, and we’re not used to this sort of tourist-focused area. “It’s like another world,” we kept saying to each other as we drove down the main road, past hotels, mini-golf courses, and other curiosities.

Nevertheless, we had a good nights sleep there and set out again the next morning to explore the barrier islands via the parks on Assateauge Island: Assateauge State Park and the Chincoteauge National Wildlife Refuge.

These islands were beautiful to explore – though I wish there weren’t so many people there (and that I’d had the right equipment on hand to qualify for driving on the beach) and we had a few very nice walks (and one not-so-nice walk that took us through the woods that were filled with mosquitoes after we’d mistakenly decided to forego bug spray). We even saw the famous wild horses (or ponies) of the island – though I didn’t stop to take their photos, as there were too many other people around.

Sunset over the bay
Sunset over the bay

One stop we did make along the way was at Wallops Island – because I, as a huge space nerd, couldn’t help but stop at the NASA installations on Wallops Island.

We spent the night at Chincoteauge before pushing on to the main event: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel.

It was at this point along the road trip that my car, the Keithombile-E, really hit its stride as far as fuel efficiency was concerned, topping out at 41 MPG – a remarkable feat for an angular SUV that weighs nearly 4,500 pounds! That little 2.1 liter twin-turbo diesel can really sip fuel when on flat roads with almost no stopping. (In case you can’t tell, I was very proud of this achievement!)

We only got a photo while it was at 40.6; it hit 41 MPG shortly after.

Finally though, at long last, we approached our goal: the bridge. We’d known that it was going to be big, but we were not quite prepared for just how big it was. We had already decided we’d cross the bridge 3 times: once going up, then back, and then across one last time. The first crossing was done almost entirely in silence as we took in the experience: over the first span, then on to the artificial island in the middle of the enormous Chesapeake Bay, the into the tunnel, then back onto the bridge again, then another artificial island and tunnel combo, and then the final span.

Selfie just before the start of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel

What a marvel of engineering! It’s a shame that the islands are closed at the moment (they are adding a second tunnel in each direction) – because apparently there was a restaurant you could stop at on them, and I wish we could’ve done that – it would’ve been very cool!

After our first round-trip over the bridge we stopped off at Cape Charles to visit another brewery (and completing the “cape-to-cape” portion of our trip).

Cape Charles Brewing Co. Beer
This brewery had some very good beers!
Oversized cans of beer from Cape Charles brewing
The beer was so good that we bought a few cans to take home with us. And did I mention the cans are HUGE?

We filmed our final crossing (my wife did all the picture-taking and filming since I was driving), and then it was onwards to Richmond for our final stay of the trip.

Although the hotel we stayed at in Richmond had a fancy roof-top bar, we didn’t make much use of it – we were both very tired by the end of the day and so we went to bed rather early.

We got up early the next day and started out on the long push for home – roughly 5 hours straight from Richmond, VA up to Morristown, NJ. With the holiday weekend ending we didn’t want to delay for too long lest we encounter bad traffic – which we had thus far mercifully avoided.

Once again, my faithful Keithmobile performed admirably, making the trip home an easy one. We only had to stop once – and that was for me, not for the car! We arrived home safe & sound (and relatively early in the day – about 12:45pm), and that was the end of our epic roadtrip!

Final MPG: 38.1
Final MPG for the second half of the trip: 38.1 MPG. Not too shabby!

All in all it was a great trip – we hit very little in the way of traffic, we got to see a lot of neat places, and we were comfortable the entire way. We were glad to be home, but we were just as glad we did this trip. Now given the success of this trip, who knows… maybe another road trip will be in our future? We’ll see!

On The Road: New York City

New York City (Broadway)Having lived a mere 35 miles from New York City for just over 7 years now, I figure it’s time to finally put down in words what driving in the City that Never Sleeps is like.

When I first moved here, I flat out refused to drive in the city – I took the train instead. However, eventually the transit authority (in its infinite wisdom) raised the prices on commuter rail tickets such that it just was plain cheaper to drive in, even allowing for the fairly hefty tolls at the tunnels and bridges into the city.

At first, New York City driving scared me. I’d lived in Massachusetts previously, and I’d driven as a courier in Boston, so I was no stranger to city driving, but New York City was city driving on a whole other level – a scale of traffic and speed and volume I’d never seen or experienced before.

But there was no avoiding it anymore – I needed to get used to driving in the city, and it wasn’t something I could learn except by doing it.

Thankfully, I’m a pretty fast learner, and I quickly picked up on the style of driving from paying attention to all the other cars on the road.

Basically, the key to driving in New York City can be summed up as: just go.

No, really – aside from stopping at traffic lights, driving in New York City is basically just going along with the flow of traffic, and when you need to turn or change lanes or do anything against that flow, you just need to have confidence in yourself – and in the fact that other people will get out of your way (within reason). Other drivers don’t want to hit you any more than you want to hit them. Once you accept this, everything else just falls into place.

This isn’t to say that driving in the city is easy – far from it. Driving in New York City is demanding; it requires a fair bit of concentration and constant awareness of your surroundings. You can’t be a lazy or inattentive driver in New York City.

This isn’t also to say that you have to be an aggressive driver in the city – but you do have to be an assertive driver. If you need to change lanes or make a turn, no one’s going to slow down & wave you out – you have to make room for yourself (to a certain extent). It’s not unlike getting on a crowded subway train – you just have to kind of push your way through if you want to get on.

The city does have its own unique challenges, of course, such as the frequent lack of lane markers, the masses of pedestrians, and let’s not forget the cab drivers – but  these are relatively minor issues compared to just getting the hang of the pace & feel & flow of driving in the city.

It did take me a little while to get fully comfortable with it, but though I was terrified of New York City driving at first, nowadays I don’t even give it a second thought.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Fiat 500L (Diesel)

Earlier this year while I was in Italy on vacation with some of the Australian side of the family, we rented a car to travel up to Lake Como in northern Italy. Unsurprisingly, the car we ended up with was a Fiat – but in this case, it was the new 4-door version, the 500L.

Fiat 500L

I’d driven a Fiat 500 before, but the 500L was something new. I was actually glad to see it – I knew from experience that fitting 4 adults into the 2-door 500 would not have been a pleasant experience, especially for the long drive we had ahead of us.

italy route map - milan to lake comoThis particular 500L was also a diesel, and a stick shift on top of that – unlike the Audi A4 I’d driven previously in this trip – so driving it out of the city of Milan and up the narrow, twisty, winding roads around Lake Como was… an interesting experience!

But truthfully, the 500L was quite easy to drive – the steering was nimble, the brakes were solid, and the overall handling was very surefooted. The diesel took a bit of getting used to, however. Unlike a small gasoline engine, the diesel in this Fiat didn’t need to be revved up – it had plenty of power down low in the rev range.  In fact, the diesel really didn’t like being at any sort of high RPMs at all – which meant I had to spent a lot of time shifting, especially up the twisty, hilly roads around Lake Como.

The 500L fit all four adults reasonably well, as well as our bags, so it is a quite practical little car. Visibility was good, the steering was nimble, and of course the diesel means it’s quite fuel efficient.

Up around the Lake Como region are some very, VERY twisty roads, which would have been quite fun to tackle – though with 4 people in the car and traffic coming in the opposite direction, I didn’t actually get much opportunity for fun. Still, the 500L was nimble and took the corners well, and at no point was I worried about the car’s capabilities. Although at times I did find myself wishing that it was a little bit smaller – although the 500L is by no means a big car, some of those roads were still a very tight fit.

All in all the Fiat 500L is a small, practical little car, that can be fun, but takes some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to how diesel engines develop their power. For myself, I’d have preferred a gas engine, but when you rent you kind of have to take what you get – and of course in Europe diesel is much more common than here in the US.

So, if you’ve always wanted to have fun in a little Fiat 500, but wanted to be able to carry more than 2 people, the 500L is certainly not a bad choice.

The Game of “Getting Lost”

The game of “taking the road less traveled,” and getting lost – on purpose!
Confused Yet?

I had the day off from work today (Columbus Day in the US) and since it’s been unseasonably warm lately, I decided to jump in the car, go for a drive, and “get lost.”

“Getting Lost” is a game I began playing with my friends back when I first got my driver’s license. The rules of the game are very simple:

  • Pick a direction and start driving
  • Whenever you have a choice of which way to go, go the way you have never been before (or the way you don’t know where it goes)
  • No turning around (unless you can’t go any further)
  • No using maps (or, these days, GPS)
  • Always come to a complete stop at all stop signs

OK, so that last rule is a bit of a gag rule from when I was young and still learning to drive properly – but hey, you’re supposed to do that anyway, so it’s a good reminder.

Basically, the idea of the game is to get lost on purpose – to go places you’ve never been before, and (eventually) make it home. The idea is that at the end of the game, you’ll have learned about the ways you’ve driven.

While it helps to have a good sense of direction (as I do), it’s not absolutely necessary. Although if you are the type who gets easily lost, you might want to bring a GPS or something similar. You can’t use one while you’re playing the game, but you can use it once the game is over and you want to go home. (The “Go Home” button on many GPS units is wonderful for this.)

This was a great game for me and my friends to play when we were all learning to drive – after all, it helped us learn our way around in a time when GPS didn’t exist, and all you were likely to have to help you navigate was maybe a street atlas (if you were lucky).

Learning the lay of the land and which roads went where was a handy skill to have back then – and it’s still a handy skill to have today, even with GPS being so common that many cars have it built right into the dashboard, and many phones have some sort of GPS or GPS-like capability built-in as well. (It was also a handy skill to have since the state I lived in at the time – Massachusetts – is not exactly known for having full street name signs on every intersection!)

Of course as time goes by, the longer you live in one place, the harder it is to really “get lost.” But this is part of the fun as well – it becomes more and more of a “challenge” to find someplace you’ve never been before.

Fortunately for me, I now live in New Jersey, and although I’ve been here for a few years now, New Jersey is a bigger state than Massachusetts (EDIT: actually, technically it’s not bigger – it’s smaller – but gosh darn it, it feels bigger), and there’s also nice big states bordering it (New York, Pennsylvania, etc.) which means there’s lots of potential places to “get lost.”

Even though I’m much older now, I still love playing this game. You never know what you might find in some out-of-the-way corner of the world, and honestly sometimes it’s just nice to go for a drive, without necessarily having a particular destination in mind.

If you are ever bored or are feeling the itch to go exploring, and you have access to a car (or motorcycle, if that’s your thing), I highly recommend picking a direction and just start driving, and as that old poem says, “take the road less traveled.”

Photo credit: RobStone, via Flickr.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Kia Soul

Keith spends a day behind the wheel of the all-new 2010 Kia Soul.
Ahhh, the 2010 Kia Soul… yeah, that car, the one with the funny commercial featuring rapping hamsters (or are they gerbils?)

I got a chance to drive this odd-looking little car recently, and much to my surprise, I actually liked it – a lot!

I was a bit worried when I first saw the Kia Soul, because I had conflicted feelings about these little cube-cars that have started to become popular lately. I worried that it would be woefully underpowered, have lousy gas mileage, and be top-heavy and completely uninteresting to drive.

Fortunately for me, the Soul turned out to have none of these problems.

The Soul has a fuel-sipping little 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which pushes out a surprising 142 HP. (For comparison, my own car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander, has a larger 2.4L 4-cylinder engine which puts out… 140 HP.) Because of this, the Soul is zippy enough to be enjoyable to drive – which I think is important, especially in small cars.

Surprisingly, although the Soul looks like it would be kind of top-heavy, it actually holds quite well through the curves. The steering on the Soul is very crisp and responsive, and you don’t feel nervous hitting a curve at some speed (although obviously not too much speed!).

On the inside, the Soul continued to impress me. The Soul has the kind of driving position I just love – elevated a bit, with good forward visibility and a comfy chair that you sit straight up in (no “leaning all the way back while driving” positions here!). The seats are at hip-level, so you just slide right in – you don’t have to fall down into the seats (like you do in some cars), and you don’t have to climb up into the seats (as you do in some big SUVs).

There is also a lot of neat techno-stuff on the inside of the Soul – the radio is cleverly laid out, and very nice – it has both a regular auxiliary input for any MP3 player, plus you can plug in your iPod and control it using the radio’s own controls (although you do need a special cable for that). You can even control your iPod using the controls on the steering wheel – which is really nice (and a safety bonus – you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to skip songs!).

The steering wheel controls, by the way, were some of the best I’ve seen yet. Unlike a lot of other cars, the controls are easy to operate just by feel alone – the buttons and switches all have unique shapes, so you can tell what button you are pressing just by feeling it. Too few car manufacturers take this aspect of steering wheel mounted controls into consideration, and you end up with controls you have to look at first before you use them – and if you have to look down from the road to see what you’re going to push, then what’s the point of having them on the steering wheel in the first place?

It almost seems like the Kia Soul is the “Goldilocks” of cars – not to big, not too small, not too sluggish but not over powered, clever but not overdone – in other words, “just right.”

However, there is one rather… jarring downside to this car, if you’ll excuse the pun – the suspension. The suspension on this car is very, very stiff. Going over bumps and such was almost painful. We’re talking “almost jolt you out of your seat” bad. Now, I know the suspension is probably stiff to help give the Soul good handling in the corners and prevent it from feeling top-heavy, but honestly I would almost prefer a little bit of top-heaving feelings just so I don’t shatter my spine every time I hit a pothole.

With that one black mark against it, the Kia Soul is otherwise a very nice car which I greatly enjoyed driving. I think it’s a very practical and economical car, without being boring, which is a rare thing these days. If the suspension wasn’t so tooth-rattling, I’d almost give it perfect marks. But even so, I still think it is a really good car. If you don’t mind a rough ride, and are in the market for something small, fun, practical and economical, I’d highly recommend the new Kia Soul.